Cultural Destinations: Petworth 

The North Gallery at Petworth House and Park, West Sussex. A rare surviving example of a purpose-built art gallery from the early 19th century, when British collectors dominated Europe.

Culturalee travelled to Sussex to the picturesque town of Petworth, to attend the opening of a breath-taking new photography exhibition at Newlands House Gallery: Nick Brandt – The Day May Break + SINK / RISE. Newlands House Gallery breaks out of the mould of the conventional art gallery, and presents a carefully curated programme of contemporary and modern art and photography in a pretty 18th Century Townhouse converted to a unique gallery space. Nick Brandt is the latest in a line of globally renowned photographers to exhibit at Newlands House, following in the footsteps of Eve Arnold, Lee Miller and Helmut Newton. Contemporary artists who have exhibited at Newlands House include artist-couple Idris Khan and Annie Morris (who purchased a country residence in Petworth after falling in love with it during lockdown), Julian Opie, Liliane Tomasko and Sean Scully. 

Newlands House Gallery. Picture courtesy Newlands House Gallery.

The Day May Break + SINK / RISE is an ongoing global series portraying people and animals that have been impacted by environmental degradation and destruction. Brandt’s unforgettable photography infuses real-world issues with a sense of magical realism, by creating cinematic images featuring people from countries affected by climate change, photographed with the animals and environments that are suffering the most. More than 60 large-format prints from Brandt’s ground-breaking photographic series are exhibited in Newlands House. Brandt’s unique ability to craft a narrative and create captivating images of seemingly impossible events, such as two men sitting on a sea saw anchored to the bed of a coral reef, or a woman sitting on a chair in the desert with a giraffe standing behind her shoulder, might appear to be the result of digital trickery. Incredibly, there is no digital manipulation of the images, and everything you see is real. Brandt created the smoky atmosphere of the monochrome series shot in Zimbabwe and Kenya by using smoke machines, to emulate a sense of forest fires, and used simple yet brilliant tricks like suspending a light bulb above his subjects to create a sort of plein air photographic studio.

What Brandt does is to craft images by some sort of alchemy, through an understanding of the unique relationship of the people he photographs to nature, and an ability to capture the inner stoicism of his subjects as they contemplate the fate of their natural habitat. 

Installation of Nick Brandt exhibition. Photo by Lee Sharrock.

Chapters One and Two of ‘The Day May Break’, which were photographed in Zimbabwe and Kenya in 2020, and in Bolivia in 2022, chronicle the stories of the people who have been dramatically impacted by climate change – some displaced by cyclones that destroyed their homes and others displaced and impoverished by severe droughts. Depicting humans and animals photographed in the same frame at sanctuaries and conservancies, the images suggest the subjects’ shared experience of navigating a rapidly degrading natural world. 

SINK/ RISE is a series of underwater photos take in Fiji in 2023, which defy gravity and evoke stills from a film. Brandt photographed local people in-camera underwater, embracing each other or calmly sitting on furniture or bleached coral reefs, as a metaphor for the irreparable damage done by rising sea levels caused by global warming. The people in the photos have all been badly affected by climate change, from extreme droughts to floods that destroyed their homes and livelihoods. SINK/ RISE focuses on South Pacific Islanders impacted by rising oceans from climate change, who are representatives of the many people whose homes, land and livelihoods will be lost in the coming decades as the water rises.

‘The Day May Break’ is a series of monochromatic images featuring people in desertscapes, pictured with endangered species, with pain etched on their faces and fear for the future in their eyes. 

Brandt’s images are mesmerising and unforgettable. There’s a temptation to be seduced by the ethereal beauty of the imagery, such as ‘Richard and Sky’, Zimbabwe 2020, which shows a man sitting on a tall chair looking into the distance, whilst a tall giraffe stands proudly behind his shoulder, smoke billowing in the background, or ‘Serafina and Keanan on Bed’, Fiji, 2023, where a young women sits on a bed frame planted on the sea bed, comforting a young man lying on her lap. However, under the surface of these ethereal images is a sense of melancholy, as the wistful expressions on the faces of the subjects betrays their powerlessness to reverse the calamitous effects of global warming on their environment, and the injustice that these people are living organic, comparatively carbon neutral lives, yet they are directly affected by the actions of over-consumption and carbon-emissions created by the ‘first world’ Westerners. 

Phillip Prodger, Curator, Author and former Head of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery in London comments: ‘A landmark body of work by one of photography’s great environmental champions. Showing how deeply our fates are intertwined, Brandt portrays people and animals together, causing us to reflect on the real-life consequences of climate change. Channelling his outrage into quiet determination, the result is a portrait of us all, at a critical moment in the Anthropocene.’ 

Brandt practices what he preaches, and in 2010 he  co-founded Big Life Foundation, a non-profit in Kenya and Tanzania that employs more than 300 local rangers protecting 1.6 million acres of the Amboseli/ Kilimanjaro ecosystem. 

Nick Brandt addresses important issues of climate change and the irreversible damage we are doing to our planet, by creating imagery featuring people who are living in some of the lowest carbon emitting countries in the world but are bearing the brunt of global warming through flooding, drought or shrinking biodiversity in their homelands. With these images, Brandt aims to jolt the viewer out of complacency, as communities around the world struggle to adapt to rising temperatures, rising sea levels and more extreme weather patterns.

A caption at the end of the exhibition underlines the core message of the images: “This exhibition is dedicated to all the good ancestors alive today, all those committed to the future billions of humans, animals and trees that they will never live to see.”  This is a wake-up call, a call to action that we need to act before it’s too late.  

Installation of Nick Brandt exhibition. Photo by Lee Sharrock.

Nick Brandt – ‘The Day May Break’ + ‘SINK / RISE’ are on display at Newlands House Gallery until 29thMay, 2024: https://newlandshouse.gallery/exhibitions/

A small exhibition of SINK/ RISE can be seen at Polka Galerie in Paris until 16th March. 

Culturalee stayed at The Angel Inn in Petworth and dined at E. Street Bar and Grill. Dating back to the 16thCentury, The Angel Inn is a historic country inn with a bar and restaurant, and seven luxuriously decorated bedrooms upstairs. Just a few steps away is E. Street Bar and Grill, an award-winning restaurant with a beautiful art collection, serving contemporary British cuisine and currently in the running for a Michelin Star.  

Considering the relatively small size of this historic West Sussex market town, Petworth has a wealth of cultural and culinary curiosities, including plenty of antique stores, galleries, café’s and delis including artistan food shop The Hungry Guest, interiors boutique Augustus Brandt and HG Café. Petworth Antiques Markets houses a collection of treasures from 30 antiques dealers, from decorative furniture to antique jewellery, vintage fashion and jewellery.  

Pictured: Petworth House, West Sussex. Image Courtesy National Trust Images – James Dobson

Petworth sits on the edge of the South Downs National Park, and is home to the grand 17th-Century Grade I-listed Petworth House, often known as the ‘English Versailles’. Petworth House is surrounded by Petworth Park, 700-acres of Capability Brown-landscaped grounds, with a roaming herd of fallow deer, an Ionic Rotunda and Doric Temple.

Petworth House was owned during the Middle Ages by the Percy family, Earls of Northumberland. In 1682 the 11th Earl’s only surviving child, Elizabeth, married Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset.  Elizabeth’s inherited wealth allowed the couple to remodel the house in the French Baroque style, reputedly by William III’s architect Daniel Marot. The house was decorated by some of the era’s leading craftsmen. Petworth was remodelled again after a fire in 1714, when Louis Laguerre was commissioned to paint a series of murals for the grand staircase. 

Pictured: North Gallery. Copyright National Trust Images – Andreas von Einsiede

Petworth House has one of the greatest picture collections belonging to the National Trust, including works by Titian, Bosch, Claude, Ruisdael, Teniers, Van Dyck, Lely, Kneller, Reynolds, Gainsborough and Blake, and an imposing portrait of King Henry VIII which is thought to be by Holbein.  

There is an unparalleled collection of Turner landscapes, perhaps because he was a friend of the 3rd Earl of Egremont, whose collection of early 19th century British paintings is displayed in the North Gallery. Also on display is also a large collection of sculpture (antique and 19th century – Flaxman and Westmacott), 17th to 19th century furniture and Chinese porcelain. 

Inspired by the imposing palaces of Europe, Petworth House was rebuilt in the 17th century with grand state rooms designed to display wealth, taste and royal connections. The State Rooms are arranged as they were when the 3rd Earl of Egremont lived at Petworth House, and The Square Dining Room is home to a large group of Van Dyck portraits acquired by the 10th Earl of Northumberland (1602-1668). One is a portrait of the 10th Earl’s father, known as the ‘Wizard Earl’, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London for 16 years.

Petworth places of interest: 

Petworth House and Park National Trust: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/visit/sussex/petworth

Petworth Places: https://petworthplaces.com

Petworth Antiques Market: https://www.petworthantiquesmarket.com

The Angel Inn: https://angelinnpetworth.co.uk

The Hungry Guest: https://thehungryguest.com

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